MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

The DVD Wrapup: Ghost in the Shell, Final Master, Inseparables, Billy Jack, Stendhal Syndrome, Warlock and more

Ghost in the Shell: 4K UHD/Blu-ray/3D
Revisiting the controversy surrounding the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the 2017 remake of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime, Ghost in the Shell, I wonder what would have happened if DreamWorks/Paramount executives had attended Comic-Con 2015 and put the question to a vote. Who would you like to see play Major in our $110-million adaptation of Shirow Masamune’s classic 1989 sci-fi manga: Lucy Liu, Maggie Q, Gong Li, Sandra Oh, Fan Bingbing or Scarlett Johansson? I suspect there would have been a runoff between Johansson and, just for the sake of argument, let’s say, Ms. Q (“Nikita”).  If the Comic-Con geeks, presumably the target audience for Ghost in the Shell, would have picked Johansson, based on her performances as the title character in Lucy and Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, the studios couldn’t have been accused later of “whitewashing” Major. If Q had been selected, the fans could have been accused of ignoring Scarlett’s international box-office appeal and dooming the project to middling returns. It has been argued, as well, that, if the execs were committed to Johansson from the get-go, the New Port City setting should have looked more like Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, than a brilliantly futuristic composite of Tokyo, Hong Kong and Ridley Scott’s dreamscapes. The only reason I bring any of this up is because the controversy appears to have had a devastating impact on international grosses. Of the $169.8 million in revenues, only $40.5 million can be credited to American ticket buyers. Having already sampled several animated versions of the same story, I think that Rupert Sanders’ remake deserved better. Ghost in the Shell looks great, features plenty of action and is only slightly more difficult for newcomers to the manga to comprehend than Oshii’s original, to which it’s extremely faithful.

Like Blade Runner, it is set in a near-futuristic fever dream, when the line between humans and robots has blurred and terrorists are threatening to tip the balance of power. Major Kusanagi is the latest iteration of a human – pulled from the brink of death in a terrible attack — cyber-enhanced to be the perfect soldier in the ongoing war against the world’s most dangerous criminals. When terrorists acquired the ability to hack into people’s minds and control them, Major was pointed in their direction. As she prepares to face a new enemy, however, she discovers that her life was not saved, it was stolen. The “ghost in her shell” demands that she recover her past, by finding out who did this to her and prevent them from doing it to others. That summarization doesn’t really do justice to the wild sci-fi conceits at play and frequently thrilling set pieces. Major’s silicone Thermosuit has called no small degree of attention to her voluptuous, terrorist-resistant figure, but, after the initial visual jolt, the effect is no more stimulating than a wet dream starring Barbie and Ken. I kind of wish that someone with a sense of humor had paid homage to Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever) by adding nipples to her costume.

Perhaps reacting to the “whitewashing” controversy, Adam Wingard decided to relocate the setting of his upcoming adaptation of Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s 12-volume manga, “Death Note,” from Japan to the United States. The cast being predominantly western — Nat Wolff, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Lakeith Stanfield – Wingard also had to make certain adjustments to the core concept. “In the early stages of the film, I was reading all of the manga, really just looking at how it might translate to the United States,” he explained. “Ultimately, ‘Death Note’ is such a Japanese thing, you can’t just say let’s port this over and it’s all going to add up. They’re two different worlds completely. It’s one of those things where the harder I tried to stay 100 percent true to the source material, the more it just kind of fell apart” Neither has it been easy condensing the volumes into a two-hour-long film. Apparently, the response from the preview audience at Comic-Con was mixed. I haven’t seen Ghost in the Shell in 3D, but the 4K UHD looks and sounds terrific. The Blu-ray adds the 30-minute “Hard-Wired Humanity: Making Ghost in the Shell,” a fan-oriented overview that includes a discussion of the story’s themes, the long process of developing the live-action project and Sanders’ influence on the project; “Section 9: Cyber Defenders,” a closer look at the details behind Section 9, as well as a further exploration of plot details, character design and qualities, and story themes; and “Man & Machine: The Ghost Philosophy,” a detailed look at the story and what it means to contemporary viewers.

The Final Master: Blu-ray
Western fans of the various Ip Man films will want to check out The Final Master, even if the legendary Wing Chun teacher’s presence is less seen than felt. Xu Haofeng, the screenwriter of Wong Kar-wai’s 2013 masterpiece, The Grandmaster, adapts his own short story here for a tale that forsakes arthouse conceits, in favor of uncompromising hand-to-hand combat, based on wuxia traditions and historical accuracy. Likewise, Wong’s atmospherics and straight-forward approach to the narrative give way in The Final Master to a plot that many viewers here will find difficult to follow, as it delves deeper into martial-arts mythology than we’ve gone beforehand. Once again, the setting is 1930s China, after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and tentative founding of a republic. Japanese imperialist forces are waiting in the wings to dominate the politically torn country, while a few warlords and gangsters desperately hold on to their corrupt power bases. Meanwhile, the fighting schools continue their business, as if nothing unusual has happened in the last 20 years and isn’t expected to occur in the future. Liao Fin plays Chen Shi, a master in Wing Chun, who’s encouraged to open a school in the northern coastal city of Tianjin, where the discipline isn’t taught. The eight dominant masters have no intention of opening Tianjin to a new competitor, especially one whose teachings involve knives. He also meets resistance from a underworld madam (Wenli Jiang), who dresses in drag, and the city’s military police. Among the many hoops through which he’s expected to jump are marrying a local woman, Zhao (Jia Song); hiring an acolyte, Geng (Yang Song), to stand in for him in fights; and defeat followers of the other schools, overseen by Grandmaster Zheng Shan’ao (Shijie Jin). Zhao is a terrifically complex lover, whose demands complicate things for Chen personally. There’s plenty of fighting on display throughout The Final Master, but the battle royal is conducted in a narrow alley, bounded at one end by four men with forged war swords, and, at the other, by several layers of combatants waiting their chance to kill the intruder. Their weapons include two-handed falchion swords and single-blade knives, long sticks and spears, and Mandarin duck knives. They attack singularly and with obvious respect for the opponent, if not their lives. Bonus features add an informative guide to the cutlery and discussion with writer/director Xu.

Inseparables
In 2011, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s charming French dramedy, The Intouchables, found the kind of success on the international arthouse circuit that inspires producers elsewhere to attempt to capture the same lightning in a bottle with home-grown talent. It’s nothing new. For a while there, it seemed as if everything Francis Veber wrote and/or directed — La cage aux folles, Le grand blond avec une chaussure noire, Le jouet, Le Diner de Cons – was Americanized and accorded such A-list talent as Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Tom Hanks, Richard Pryor, Jackie Gleason, Steve Carell and Paul Rudd. The English-language translations — The Birdcage, The Man with One Red Shoe, The Toy and Dinner for Schmucks – made the trans-Atlantic journey unscathed. The same can be said for The Intouchables, which has been adapted into Spanish as Inseparables, by Argentinian writer/director Marcos Carnevale (Elsa & Fred). Next year, it will be reimagined in English, as Neil Burger’s “Untouchable,” with Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Golshifteh Farahani and Julianna Margulies. In Carnevale’s version, Oscar Martinez (Wild Tales) plays Felipe, a wealthy businessman who lost the use of his arms and legs in a riding accident. While interviewing candidates for a therapeutic assistant, he decides to take a flyer on Tito (Rodrigo De la Serna), a belligerent young man who can’t even handle the gardener’s-assistant job at the mansion. The fact that Tito’s experience is more conducive to dealing drugs than being a healer appears to thrill Felipe, who’s coming to the point where boredom is a real problem. If memory serves, it takes Felipe a bit less time to adjust to Tito than it did for François Cluzet’s Philippe to come to grips with Omar Sy’s Driss, an arrogant West-African immigrant. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by revealing that Felipe and Tito develop a bromance that benefits both men, while only slightly complicating the lives of everyone else in the household. Complications naturally arise, but nothing that spoils the story’s inherent humor or humanity.

Black Butterfly: Blu-ray
Based on, if not credited directly to the French TV movie “Papillon Noir,” Brian Goodman’s cat-and-mouse thriller, Black Butterfly, should satisfy fans of Deathtrap and Misery, and don’t mind being manipulated almost unconscionably by talented, high-profile actors. Antonio Banderas plays Paul, a blocked, alcoholic screenwriter, who’s facing a deadline he can’t possibly meet and demons he can’t lay to rest. He’s trying to sell his isolated mountain retreat through an agent portrayed by Piper Perabo, but is too lazy and broke to fix it up to impress perspective buyers. One day, while in town for provisions he can’t afford, either, Paul is rescued from a confrontation with a crazed trucker by a drifter, Jack (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who resembles a pre-“Hound Dog” Elvis Presley. On the way back home, Paul invites the hitchhiker to spend the night in his warm, comfortable cabin. Few viewers will be surprised by Jack’s offer to help the writer spruce up the cabin and, after gaining Paul’s confidence, giving him advice on his block and forwarding ideas for a story. He suggests the current situation, in which a complete stranger ingratiates himself with a blocked writer, while the search for a serial killer continues apace in the mountainous terrain. At first, Jack’s intentions are unclear. He demands that Paul give up the booze and focus resolutely on writing. Meanwhile, Jack’s furtive behavior would indicate that he’s the killer. And, maybe, he is. We witness as much before our eyes. The breaking point comes when the real-estate agent makes the mistake of visiting at an inopportune time and becomes a prisoner. If the ending begs credulity, viewers should enjoy the interplay between Banderas and Rhys-Davies and pastoral beauty of the setting. (Italy’s Central Apennines, for the American Rockies.) The Blu-ray adds commentary with Goodman and co-writer Mark Frydman, and “Black Butterfly: Backstage.”

The Country Doctor
Doctor-turned-filmmaker Thomas Lilti follows his multi-César-nominated Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor with another story about physicians at a crossroads, The Country Doctor (a.k.a.,Irreplaceable”). The social dramedy’s setting leaves Paris for an agricultural region deep in the countryside. It stars Francois Cluzet (Tell No One), as Jean-Pierre Werner, a devoted and revered doctor/confidante, whose clientele has gotten so used to his attention that he’s sometimes forced to take their whims as seriously as their illnesses. When he’s diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor, Werner is required to accept the presence of a middle-age female healer, Nathalie Delezia (Marianne Denicourt), who is his polar opposite. For the sake of the story, at least, Werner’s attitude toward her assignment is dismissive, to the point of being rude and possibly misogynistic. He criticizes her every diagnosis and treatment, frequently in front of the patients, and considers modern science to be something reserved for city slickers. Predictably, there will come a point in The Country Doctor when Werner can’t help but accept Nathalie’s medical opinions and assistance. As befits a dramedy, too, Nathalie’s relations with the community only begin to warm when she meets the locals more than halfway in their social routines. The fact is that Werner’s condition isn’t getting any better and push will come to shove. Lilti, who interned at a similar facility in Normandy, has a knack for being able to merge science and humanity, in the service of melodrama. The lead actors are perfectly matched and townsfolk, for the most part, look as if they could benefit both from some old-fashioned TLC and modern techniques.

Facing Darkness
There’s no disguising the fact that Facing Darkness is a faith-based documentary. It admits as much on the DVD jacket: “From executive producer Franklin Graham/A Samaritan’s Purse Film … A True Story of Faith: Saving Dr. Brantly From Ebola in Africa.” Even so, Facing Darkness tells a story even a hard-core atheist could sit through, without getting the heebie-jeebies every time the deity is invoked. Conveniently, the proselytizing and evangelizing occur mostly in the bonus package. Otherwise, the faith on display is limited to the occasional “Praise God” and belief that the combined force of prayer and medicine helped the Samaritan’s Purse team turn the corner on the Ebola epidemic in Liberia … not prayer, alone. The elemental conundrum is never far from the surface. If an all-powerful God refused to prevent the pandemic from spreading, why would He/She/It turn around and facilitate its cure? As a recruiting tool, perhaps? If that sounds cynical, potential viewers should know going into Facing Darkness that it’s impossible not to come away it impressed by the dedication of Samaritan’s Purse team not only to stop the spread of the plague throughout West Africa, but risk their own lives caring for and comforting the afflicted.

In the spring of 2014, as the Ebola pandemic swept through Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the first line of defense was provided by Samaritan’s Purse, Doctors Without Borders and SIM USA. (There were only 50 Liberian doctors in country, at the time.) No amount of pleading could get other countries, or the WHO, seriously involved in the effort. Sadly, it wasn’t until Dr. Kent Brantly and aid worker Nancy Writebol contacted the disease and were in dire need help themselves – including finding a plane equipped to fly them to Atlanta – that President Obama was compelled to send military personnel to West Africa to help containment and control its spread. Troops and vaccine arrived too late to save Samuel Brisbane, a former adviser to the Liberian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare; leading Sierra Leone Ebola doctor, Sheik Umar Khan; Nigerian physician Ameyo Adadevoh; and Mbalu Fonnie, a licensed nurse-midwife and nursing supervisor at the Kenema hospital in Sierra Leone, with over 30 years of experience.  Director Arthur Rasco does a nice job balancing the personal and professional in the various dramatic throughlines in Facing Darkness. Another good source of information on the war against the pandemic is Nova’s “Surviving Ebola,” also available on DVD. Like I said, the bonus package is reserved for the sales pitch on Samaritan’s Purse and Brother Graham’s ministry.

Red Leaves
For hundreds, maybe thousands of years, families have maintained order within themselves by adhering to norms, traditions and dictates that can be traced to the bible. I don’t think that anyone can argue that wives and daughters – especially those outside farm families, where the division of labor is more clearly defined – have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to sharing the power to affect crucial decisions. Today, of course, everything’s changed, unless the family adheres to fundamentalist values. It’s difficult enough to get the entire family to agree to a time when they’re free to sit down together for dinner, let alone maintain the patriarchy. The only things Bazi Gete’s debut feature, Red Leaves, adds to the oft-told story is an ethno-religious context that borders on the tragic. Twenty-eight years before the story begins, Meseganio Tadela immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia, as Beta Israel. He built an agricultural business and raised a large, stable family. After losing his wife, Meseganio decides to sell his business and apartment – without consulting his children, who think he was cheated – and embark on a journey that he expects to lead him through his children’s homes. In fact, he pretty much shows up on their doorsteps unannounced and at some inopportune times. When the family gathered at his apartment, he could set the terms of engagement and proper behavior. Meseganio still believes that he’s in charge, even though, technically, he’s merely visiting his children’s homes. This translates into such demands as forcing his daughter to provide such menial services as locating the Ethiopian-language station on the TV to refusing to accept a daughter’s choice in boyfriends, and demeaning her in front of her siblings. Finally, he’s given the option of withholding his opinions or taking a hike. About 125,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel and Meseganio’s comfort level ends at the borders of the close-knit community. Left to his own devices, he’s adrift in a country whose language he doesn’t fully understand and where a disoriented African immigrant might feel unwanted. Debebe Eshetu, whose last film credits were notched in the early 1970s (Shaft in Africa), is scary good in the lead role.

Mali Blues
Gospel According to Al Green: Blu-ray
If you trace the roots of the blues far enough, they’ll lead across the Middle Passage to West Africa. Ry Cooder and African multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Toure demonstrated that much on “Talking Timbuktu,” as did banjo maestro Bela Fleck, in Throw Down Your Heart, in which he discovered the instrument’s ancient origins on his tour of Gambia, Tanzania, Uganda and Mali. Malian musical traditions are derived from the griots, who are known as “Keepers of Memories.” The title, Mali Blues, reflects two realities. The first involves the landlocked country’s musical legacy as the birthplace of America’s delta blues, while the second describes the current emotional state of musicians who’ve been silenced, in some parts of the country, by Islamic militants. Although things improved for people in the north after French and Malian troops combined forces to drive them out, reports of Sharia law being re-imposed have begun to circulate. Timbuktu’s ecumenical Festival au Desert has been suspended since 2013. (A touring Caravan for Peace has taken its place.) Lutz Gregor’s documentary is framed by a 2015 music festival held on the banks of the Niger River, in the capital city of Bamako. It profiles four of the participating performers: singer/guitarist Diawara, who appeared in Abderrahmane Sissako’s acclaimed 2014 drama “Timbuktu”; Bassekou Kouyate, a Grammy-nominated musician and griot who plays the ngoni, a traditional string instrument considered to be a precursor to the banjo; Master Soumy, a rapper whose politically charged lyrics directly comment on the fundamentalists’ distortion of Islam; and Ahmed Ag Kaedi, a guitar virtuoso who had his equipment destroyed by Islamists and risked having his fingers chopped off should he resume playing. After performing a song about her own genital mutilation, Diawara engages in a spirited discussion with several older village women, some of whom defend the practice. We also learn that she fled home years earlier to avoid an arranged marriage and has only recently begun performing again in her native country. Less difficult to locate is John Bosch’s Sahel Calling, which covers much of the same territory as Mali Blues.

Nearly a quarter-century after it was released, Robert Mugge’s brilliant documentary, The Gospel According to Al Green, is as compelling as ever. It was shot 10 years after he was assaulted in his home by, depending upon whom one believes, an acquaintance/girlfriend who doused Green with a pan of boiling water/grits while he was bathing, causing severe burns on the singer’s back, stomach and arms. The woman, who was already married, with children, then found his .38 and killed herself. After he recovered from the attack physically and emotionally, Green became an ordained pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle, in Memphis, while also touring as a R&B singer. In 1979, Green injured himself falling off the stage, while performing in Cincinnati, and interpreted this as a message from God to focus on pastoring his church and gospel singing. A few years later, Mugge caught the Hall of Fame artist in a reflective mood, as he discussed his lifelong interest in gospel music, recording, performing and preaching the gospel. At a church service, he’s led into the room by a military escort, before cranking up the crowd with soulful gospel singing and spirited preaching. Sometimes, the only real difference between R&B and gospel is the day of the week and hour of day they’re performed. While Green hasn’t completely cut his links to pop music, her can still be found at the Full Gospel Tabernacle, on Sunday mornings, doing his thing for parishioners and tourists, alike. The bonus package adds “Soul and Spirit: Robert Mugge on the Making of The Gospel According to Al Green,” in which the filmmaker documents the history of the project; an extended song from the church service; a lengthy audio-tape interview with Green; a “Climax of Church Service”; concert audio; and answering-machine message.

The Stendhal Syndrome: Limited Edition: Blu-ray
It’s entirely fitting that so much of Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome (1995) is set within a few meters of the shrines that caused 19th Century French author Stendhal (a.k.a., Marie-Henri Beyle) to suffer an overdose of beauty and emotion. He wasn’t alone, either. Also known as Florence Syndrome and hyperkulturemia, it has been described as a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations in people who are exposed to extraordinary artistic achievement, whether it be paintings or sculptures. Variations of the ailment include Lisztomania, Jerusalem syndrome and Paris syndrome, in which tourists, mostly Japanese, are overwhelmed by the fact that the City of Lights isn’t quite as romantic and fashionable as the magazines make it out to be. Argento claims he experienced Stendhal syndrome while touring Athens as a child, with his parents. He was climbing the steps of the Parthenon when he was overcome by a trance that caused him to become lost for hours. Here, the young and beautiful police detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento) is on the bloody trail of a sophisticated serial murderer/rapist through the streets of Florence. While in the same room of the Uffizi Gallery as her prey, Anna is overcome by Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” and Bruegel’s “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus.” (Up until then, Argento was the only director ever granted permission to shoot there.) Thus, tipped off to the cop’s presence, the killer, Alfredo Grossi (Thomas Kretschmann), develops a scheme to confront and punish her. It isn’t for the squeamish … and knowing the father/daughter connection only makes it creepier. Residual feelings from both traumatic events leave Anna trapped in a twilight realm, in which she plunges deeper and deeper into sexual psychosis. It allows her to understand Alfredo’s murderous affliction more intimately and lay a trap of her own making. Fans of Argento and Italian giallo will appreciate Blue Underground’s 2K restoration and newly produced bonus material. It adds fresh commentary with Troy Howarth, author of “So Deadly, So Perverse”; new interviews with Asia Argento, co-writer Franco Ferrini and special makeup artist Franco Casagni; and a booklet with an essay by author Michael Gingold. Other bonus material has been ported over from previous versions.

Devil’s Domain: Blu-ray
Warlock Collection: Blu-ray
Lust of the Vampire Girls
Horror specialist Jared Cohn’s brief IMDB.com biography describes the native New Yorker as a spiritual person who believes in karma. Having participated in the creation of such schlocky titles as Sharknado: Heart of Sharkness, Bikini Spring Break, Little Dead Rotting Hood and 12/12/12 (the prequel to 13/13/13), it’s difficult to imagine where he thinks his karmic destiny might lead him. If nothing else, Cohn’s willingness to dabble in Satanism, torture porn and murder demonstrates a lack of fear of hell. The one sin he can’t be accused of exploiting is sloth. Since 2009, when he added writing, directing and producing to his acting resume, Cohn’s worked like a demon to keep the straight-to-video marketplace afloat. Devil’s Domain, which must have been completed in late-2015, is only now being made available on DVD/Blu-ray/VOD. Since then, Cohn has finished or began production on 11 other directorial projects and 5 screenplays. What do they say about idle hands? In this old-school throwback, the devil arrives via the Internet, in the form of a smoking-hot stranger, Destiny (Linda Bella), who answers a teen girl’s pleas for relief from cyber-bullying. Lisa (Madi Vodane) once made the unforgiveable mistake of acting on sexual cues she believes were being transmitted by her best friend. Instead, the BFF not only rejected Lisa’s advances, but she also made sure the girl wouldn’t enjoy a day’s peace thereafter. Her classmates, in turn, make the more egregious mistake of planting cameras in her bedroom and bathroom. Images of Lisa binging-and-purging, masturbating and doing odd things before bedtime are made available to everybody on the school’s social network. Somehow, while web-surfing for help, she catches Dynasty’s attention. The red-gowned seductress offers her a deal. In return for ridding her of the bullies, Lisa will bear Satan a child. When things get real, however, she panics. Devil’s Domain isn’t a direct lift of Heathers, Carrie or Rosemary’s Baby, but it’s safe to say that Cohn carried memories of those classics in his wallet, alongside his guild cards. To think that Satan’s minions monitor the Internet, as if they were employees of the NSA, is an excellent conceit for 21st Century horror. Michael Madsen, as Lisa’s rockabilly dad, is the only recognizable cast member, and, for once, he doesn’t have to get his hands very dirty. The soundtrack includes selections from Iggy & the Stooges, Big Jay McNeely, DMX, Onyx, VOWWS & Gary Numan and Brainticket.

Julian Sands is as at home on the stage, as he is in movies and television, where the diversity of roles he’s played borders on the ridiculous. For all his visibility in horror, sci-fi and suspense films – Arachnophobia, Dario Argento’s The Phantom of the Opera, Boxing Helena, “24,” “Smallville” — the lithe, blond-haired Yorkshire native could be mistaken on this side of the pond as a genre specialist. Classier credits include Leaving Las Vegas, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Killing Fields, A Room With a View, The Loss of Sexual Innocence and Naked Lunch. On their own, these titles would suggest Sands is an arthouse darling. If, after 35 years before the camera, he’s complaining about the confusion, it isn’t apparent in the interviews conducted for Lionsgate’s surprisingly entertaining “Warlock Collection.” I only say “surprisingly” because they still hold up after 20-30 years and I missed them the first time around … and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed them. The Vestron Video Collector’s Edition contains three movies on two discs – Warlock (1989), Warlock: The Armageddon (1993) and Warlock III: The End of Innocence (1999) — as well as more bonuses than anyone in 1989 could have imagined. Sands stars in the first two installments, while fellow Brit Bruce Payne takes over in “III.” The original is inarguably the best of the three, but none of chapters is less than watchable.

In Warlock, Sands plays a demonic sorcerer, who, in 1691 Massachusetts, escapes the hangman by slipping through a conveniently placed time portal. It transports him to 1980s Los Angeles, where smog and toxic particulates were a fair substitute for fire and brimstone. The portal also allows witch hunter Giles Redferne (Richard E. Grant) to make the journey in hot pursuit. In addition to some pretty amusing fish-out-of-water setups, the story allows for some genuinely gory violence. Apparently, Warlock is looking for the missing pages to a long, lost grimoire, which would allow him to make contact with the ancient spirit Zamiel. In doing so, Warlock hopes to be accepted as a son of Satan. Lori Singer plays the girlfriend of his first victim, who teams up with Redferne to prevent the sorcerer from making the connection and launching Armageddon. The first scenes benefit from its carefully crafted Old New England setting, while the rest of the movie is carried by the inventive effects and interplay between the time-travelers. The bonus package is generous to a fault, as it overflows with interviews, making-of featurettes and backgrounders.

In Warlock: The Armageddon, the demon has, indeed, been resurrected as a true son of Satan. He returns to present-day America in pursuit of a collection of magical rune stones, handed down from ancient Druids and scattered around the western U.S. among a variety of unrelated people. Modern Druid practitioners have been warned of the arrival of the son of Satan and are already in place when he arrives. Meanwhile, high school sweethearts Kenny Travis (Chris Young) and Samantha Ellison (Paula Marshall) find themselves in a “Romeo & Juliet” dilemma when their fathers –rival religious leaders – demand they separate. Turns out, Kenny is destined to confront Warlock in a winner-take-all battle for souls and magic stones. Set and shot in Ireland, Warlock III should be a lot worse than it is, if only for the absence of Sands. Instead, the haunted-house thriller is saved by a taut script and tongue-in-cheek performance by Payne. When a gorgeous college student (Ashley Laurence) unexpectedly learns that she has inherited a derelict estate in the country, she invites a group of friends to help her clear the house of family heirlooms, of which there are precious few. Naturally, the visitors manage to ignore all of the signs of evil spirits and boogeymen, thus falling into all of the traps set by Warlock, who has a vested interest in the property. The second disc adds even more special features.

There’s a lot of inexperience on display in Matt Johnson’s debut feature, Lust of the Vampire Girls, a title that’s better than anything in the DIY movie. Everyone’s got to start somewhere. In what is described as a homage to European exploitation films of the 1960-70s, a man searches for his missing girlfriend, who has been abducted by a clan of vampires led by an insane Nazi doctor. The poor guy is required to battle this horde of bloodsuckers in order to retrieve the soul of the woman he loves, and save his own from eternal damnation.

The Complete Billy Jack Collection: Blu-ray
If, today, the name Billy Jack is more likely to be found in a pile of dog-eared Trivial Pursuit questions than anywhere else, it isn’t because he wasn’t a considerable force, back in the day. In fact, at a time when the independent-film movement was in its infancy, Tom Coughlin’s vigilante alter ego was a full-blown phenomenon. The series of films that comprise Shout!Factory’s “The Complete Billy Jack Collection” begins in 1967 with the then-revisionist biker-gang picture, Born Losers. Self-financed, it returned $35 million on an investment of $325,000. It updates the basic plot of The Wild Ones – outlaw bikers terrorize a town ill-equipped to protect itself – by adding a hero unafraid of any setting the thugs straight. What made the character unique was his existential approach to enforcing the peace and ridding the town of punks. Billy broke the mold as a half-American Indian/half-white ex-Green Beret, bent on correcting injustice and hypocrisy through a passive-aggressive persona, well-reasoned arguments, martial arts and a willingness to use extralegal methods to stand up for society’s underdogs. A true cowboy hero, Billy vows to protect several women called to testify against bikers accused of rape and assault. Despite the amazing success of Born Losers, Laughlin faced distribution roadblocks with his 1971follow-up, Billy Jack, even at AIP. Filmed almost entirely in New Mexico and Arizona, it upgraded the ex-Green Beret to a hapkido expert who saves wild horses from being slaughtered for dog food and protects a “freedom school” from local bullies and redneck cops. It’s here that Billy trades his cowboy hat for a wide-brimmed Uncle Joe and dials up the action with more frequent fights. Critics weren’t thrilled with a character who preached peace, love and understanding, but wasn’t reluctant to use his fists, feet and bullets when all else failed. It became a huge hit among kids and young adults who identified with the outcasts in need of a champion in Billy. The casting of actors who may never have stepped before a camera also was well-received. The second sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) also made money, but was roundly trashed by mainstream critics, who ridiculed its populist approach and atypical cast of characters. Two years before Jaws introduced the tentpole concept to distribution and marketing, “Trial” opened simultaneously in cities across the country and commercials were broadcast for it during the national news. Released in 1977, Billy Jack Goes to Washington is a loose remake of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In it, he’s appointed a U.S. Senator to fill out the remaining term of a less-principled politician. Instead of going along to get along, as expected, he confronts corrupt politicians and lobbyists, in some cases naming actual names. A new version of “One Tin Soldier (The Legend of Billy Jack),” sung by daughter Teresa Laughlin, is played over the closing credits. Because the film’s overtly political message made distributors uneasy, it wasn’t accorded a general release and was severely cut. (Most, maybe all of the deleted material has replaced.) After that, Laughlin focused on social activism and promoting issues close to his heart. He was also plagued by serious health concerns. Bonus material includes commentaries and galleries, but not much else.

The Glass Coffin
Seventy-seven minutes is just the right length for this single-character, locked-door thriller from the Basque country, although it could take place anywhere on Earth and have the same effect. Paola Bontempi plays Amanda, an actress at that certain age in life when she receives more invitations to lifetime-achievement testimonials than offers for roles. As The Glass Coffin opens, she’s just learned that her husband won’t be able to attend that night’s ceremony, deciding, instead, to spend it on the road, in a hotel. Peeved, Amanda nervously paces her room, memorizing her speech. Once the limousine arrives, however, she’s able to kick back and enjoy a drink before reaching her destination. The title of Haritz Zubillaga’s feature debut gives away everything, except the intensity of the actress’ dilemma when she realizes that the fancy limousine could soon be her tomb. The windows are darkened to the point that the world outside may as well not exist, her cellphone is jammed and the chauffeur stopped paying attention to her demands moments after the door locks slammed shut. A disembodied voice tells her that she’s trapped, and begins to force her into doing things that slowly eat away at her respect, integrity and sanity. How long can she endure such torture, before succumbing to whatever it is the person behind the voice wants her to do. My guess is 77 minutes.

Ad Nauseam
At a time when jobs for college graduates are few and far between, the desperate ones will consider taking work they know will demean their initiative, devalue their education and make them want to wear a bag on their head whenever they leave home. Two such young people, Derek (Andrew Johnston) and Clive (James McFay), are at the forefront of the dark Aussie comedy, Ad Nauseam. This is nothing new, of course, people have voluntarily made themselves look ridiculous on television, on shows such as “Let’s Make a Deal” and “The Gong Show” for more than 50 years. If picked, they still stand in line for a chance to trade real money for what’s behind Door Number 3. The game has changed only slightly since major corporations have learned to exploit the Internet’s most beloved sites and services for profit. Derek and Clive make videos they hope will go viral and, in doing so, create inherent value for sponsors. It doesn’t matter if the content itself carries a subliminal message or carefully disguised logos, because what really matters is that viewers are so entertained by the lads’ pranks that they’ll stick around to see who paid for such nonsense. As with any business, certain goals are created for the business’ employees to meet and surpass. In Ad Nauseum, the target for Derek and Clive to meet is 1 million views per video on YouTube. The problem comes when Derek decides that he’s sick and tired of making a fool of himself in front of tens of thousands of viewers and wants to pursue his dream of becoming a novelist. Desperate, Clive asks his partner to make one last video, which, he believes, will ring the bell on the million-views goal. It involves a mutual friend whose success as a playwright has driven Clive into a jealous rage. When things begin to go sideways, however, it’s difficult to separate the hilarity from humiliation. And, that’s the point. Things always threaten to spin out of control. In case you’re wondering, Nikos Andronicus’ other projects include “Vindalosers: How to Win in India,” “The Ronnie Johns Half Hour,” “Psychotown,” “Billy and the Bitch” and “Fish With Legs.” You get the picture.

TV-to-DVD
PBS: Frontline: American Patriot
PBS: Frontline: Second Chance Kids
PBS: Frontline: Poverty, Politics and Profit
PBS: NOVA: Poisoned Water
BBC Earth: Nature’s Great Race
Anyone who still hasn’t figured out Donald Trump’s appeal to the masses could learn a lot from watching the PBS “Frontline” presentation, “American Patriot.” In the kind of detail some liberals, especially, will find frightening, the producers examine the battle between a ranching family – the Bundys, of Nevada — and the federal government, which inspired a wider militia movement, an armed confrontation in Oregon and widespread challenges to law enforcement. During the presidential campaign, Trump rejected the radical anti-federal land movement, made famous during the Bundy family occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, claiming the lands should stay in public hands. In one of his many changes of heart since being elected, the President has indicated that he might consider privatizing national monuments and appointing a Bundy loyalist, Wyoming lawyer Karen Budd-Falen, to head the Bureau of Land Management. The agency controls almost 250 million acres of publicly owned lands. For those of us who don’t want to see such treasures exploited for corporate profits – not to mention allowing cattle to graze for free and drop cow pies on our most sacred reserves — “American Patriot” should be considered must-viewing.

What happens when prisoners convicted of murder as teenagers are given the opportunity to re-enter society? That’s the issue explored in the “Frontline” presentation, “Second Chance Kids.” Until Miller v. Alabama — the 2012 Supreme Court ruling that found mandatory life sentences, without the chance of parole for juveniles, unconstitutional – this was hardly a pressing issue for Americans who assumed such punishment kept society safe from “superpredators.” (The controversial phrase, coined during the Clinton administration, described young people who demonstrated “no conscience, no empathy” while committing serious crimes.) By charging the teens as adults, it was widely assumed that the offenders wouldn’t be automatically released at 18 or 21. According to the show’s producers, some 2,000 convicted youths are awaiting the opportunity to test their fates in front of probationary panels. “Second Chance Kids” follows the cases of two of the first juvenile lifers in the country to seek parole or re-sentencing following the landmark ruling. As the documentary argues, the “superpredator” theory resulted in the disproportionately extreme sentencing of black and Latino youths. It has since been largely discredited and disavowed.

In a nine-month investigation that took them from Dallas and Miami, to an upscale resort in Costa Rica, NPR’s Laura Sullivan and Frontline producer Rick Young not only discovered that just one in four households eligible for Section 8 assistance is getting it, but also that the nation’s signature low-income housing construction program is costing more and producing less. The “Poverty, Politics and Profit” team follows a money trail that raises questions about the oversight of a program meant to house low-income people, while also exploring the inseparability of race and housing programs in America and tracing a legacy of segregation that began more than 80 years ago. It includes examining charges that developers have stolen money meant to house low-income people.

How safe is our tap water? In the special “NOVA” report, “Poisoned Water,” reporters investigate what happened in Flint, Michigan, when local officials changed the city’s water source to save money, but overlooked a critical treatment process. As the water pipes corroded, lead leached into the system, exposing the community to dangerous levels of poison. “NOVA” uncovers the science behind this manmade disaster, from the intricacies of water chemistry, to the biology of lead poisoning and the misuse of science, itself. As we now know, city and public-health officials found it more convenient to turn a blind eye to poisoning, than to find permanent remedies. The overriding question, of course, concerns the number of communities whose officials are hiding potential problems with their water systems.

The gorgeous “BBC Earth” presentation, “The Great Race,” follows three groups of animals – caribou, zebra and elephants – as they repeat their annual migrations. Surely, we witnessed such amazing journeys from afar dozens of times, in nature documentaries, television or movies. It never fails to impress. What’s different, of course, are the advances in photographic technology, GPS tracking and drone-borne cameras that allow for reporters and researchers to put viewers as close to the migration routes as we’ve ever been. For example, how many of us have watched a bull caribou subdue an overly aggressive adult bear, using only its antlers? The three-part program uses new scientific discoveries to understand what drives these animals to risk everything in the race of their lives. What’s missing are the tens of millions of American bison slaughtered, largely for “sport” and to turn bones into fertilizers. We’ve been told that their migrations were unlike any on Earth. Sadly, we’ll never see the likes of them here, ever again.

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Dear Irene Cho, I will miss your energy and passion; your optimism and joy; your kindness towards friends, colleagues, strangers, struggling filmmakers, or anyone who randomly crossed your path and needed a hand. My brothers and I have long considered you another sibling in our family. Our holiday photos – both western and eastern – have you among all the cousins, in-laws, and kids… in the snow, sun, opening presents, at large dinner gatherings, playing Monopoly, breaking out pomegranate seeds and teaching us all how to dance Gangnam style. Your friendship and loyalty meant a great deal to me: you were the loudest cheerleader when I experienced victories and you were always ready with sushi when I had disappointments. You had endless crazy ideas which always seemed impossible but you would will them into existence. (Like that time you called me and suggested that we host a brunch for newly elected mayor of LA, Eric Garcetti because “he is going to president one day.” We didn’t have enough time or funding, of course, only your desire to do it. So you did, and I followed.) You created The Daily Buzz from nothing and it survived on your steam in spite of many setbacks because you believed in a platform for emerging filmmakers from all nations. Most of all, you were a wonderful mother to your son, Ethan, a devoted wife to your husband, and a wonderful sibling and daughter to your family. We will all miss how your wonderful smile and energy lit up the room and our lives. Rest in peace, Irene.
~ Rose Kuo Remembers Irene Cho on Facebook

“You know, I was never a critic. I never considered myself as a film critic. I started doing short films, writing screenplays and then for awhile, for a few years I wrote some film theory, including some film criticism because I had to, but I was never… I never had the desire to be a film critic. I never envisioned myself as a film critic, but I did that at a period of my life when I thought I kind of needed to understand things about cinema, understand things about film theory, understand the world map of cinema, and writing about movies gave me that, and also the opportunity to meet filmmakers I admired.

“To me, it was the best possible film school. The way it changed my perspective I suppose is that I believe in this connection between theory and practice. I think that you also make movies with ideas and you need to have ideas about filmmaking to achieve whatever you’re trying to achieve through your movies, but then I started making features in 1986 — a while ago — and I left all that behind.

“For the last three decades I’ve been making movies, I’ve been living, I’ve been observing the world. You become a different person, so basically my perspective on the world in general is very different and I hope that with every movie I make a step forward. I kind of hope I’m a better person, and hopefully a better filmmaker and hopefully try to… It’s very hard for me to go back to a different time when I would have different values in my relationship to filmmaking. I had a stiffer notion of cinema.”
~ Olivier Assayas